5 Things You Need to Thrive and Succeed as a Female Founder

Being self-aware is more than self-confident, both of which are essential. Self-awareness allows you to identify the areas of your business that are your strengths and the ones that are weaknesses.

Asa part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adriana Cowdin. Adriana Cowdin is a published author, 4-time entrepreneur, and “recovering” Chief Marketing Officer from Corporate America. She opened her most recent company, Dekaf Digital, a boutique social media agency, five years ago and scaled it 425% during COVID. In addition, she runs a successful coaching company elevating Female Entrepreneurs and Executives; she’s coached over 6,500 professionals across 5 continents to greater success.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Istarted my career young in Corporate America; specifically HR for the telecom industry. As time went on I wanted a new challenge and transferred to the global marketing dept. of my company. After only a week I knew I’d found what I loved to do. That was in 1999 and here I am, decades later, still loving marketing. Since that time I’ve had the pleasure of being a VP, Social & Mobile for a $40B retailer, the Chief Digital Marketing Officer for a privately-held firm, and the Chief Marketing Officer for a PE-Backed Manufacturing compnay. For the last 5 years I’ve served as the CEO and Managing Director of Dekaf Digital, my digital marketing agency.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

This may sound odd but the most interesting thing to me was the first time I was sued. Another company said we’d infringed on them…which we had not…but, I was elated! If we’re being sued, it meant people were finding us and they’re scared of us as competition…success!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made when I was first starting out was to take on any, and every, customer. I quickly realized that to be successful we’d have to find our niche and excel in it. So, rather than being all things to all people, we zoned in on strategy and social media and boy did it work.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I’m very grateful to Melody Reagan. She was a Senior Vice President when I was a Senior Manager, back at Level 3 Communications in 1999. She stopped by my office, or rang me, every day for over a month asking me to come to work for her in Marketing. I finally gave in and that was the true beginning of my career. We tackled global marketing with a vengeance and delivered results they couldn’t have even imagined. Her leadership, loyalty, attention-to-detail, and charisma were the guiding beacon of the marketing team, and I learned a great deal from her.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

One of the main things holding women back from founding companies is time. Being an entrepreneur and company founder takes over your life. That’s why many people refer to their company as their baby. They demand all your attention, energy, and resources for the first few years. With women being the primary caregiver in many homes, they must work twice as hard to found and operate, a business. Hence why we’re superheroes!

Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?

One of the ways women can overcome the constant demand for them is by finding a solid business partner to balance the workload. Another way is to hire an assistant to do the repetitive, non-revenue generating tasks thereby freeing up more of your time, as the founder, to focus on new services, strategy, clients, and leading your team. Outsource anything that’s not your key skillset and then find a way to turn it into a profit machine. Remember you don’t have to go it alone…there are vast amounts of people and agencies ready to help women founders!

This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder, but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Speaking directly to 2021, now is the best time to start a new business. If you want to do something with a physical location, rents are down due to the pandemic, and you can sign a sweetheart of a deal on space. If you want to build an online store, go for it. eCommerce and shopping online have jumped drastically, up 44%, since COVID. Women deserve a piece of the $861 Billion retail sales pie. Not to mention that women know how to market to, and sell to, other women. We are the ones buying the goods and services so why not be the ones building the companies that provide those goods and services? We bring a different perspective, skill set and grit than men do….partly because we’ve had to struggle more to obtain funding, open a company, find a partner, balance home life, etc.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?

The biggest myth is that I have a lot of time off to “play”. Owning, and running, your own company is an arduous, never-ending series of meetings and work. I literally dedicated 1 day/wk. just to follow up on things missed the rest of the week due to last minute client, or team, needs.

Another myth is that entrepreneurs are born v. bred that way. Sure, some are born with the entrepreneurial instincts, but many develop those over time and through working for other people. Personally, neither of my parents were entrepreneurs growing up yet both my brother and I are now.

The third myth is that all you need is a good idea. Hogwash! Yes, you need a good idea, but you need to develop a concise, cohesive business plan to determine if that idea is viable as a business and, if so, what your market and competition look like. Anyone can have an idea, only some people can make an idea a reality.

Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?

Not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur/founder. Being a founder takes strong communication skills, relationship-building skills, grit, patience, energy, sacrifice, and more. If you’ve got a good idea but don’t have the ability to financially sustain yourself, and your household, for at least 18 mos. then stay working for someone else. If your time is constrained due to activities, people, events away from work, stay as an employee. Being a founder is a lot of time and work. Also, many founders believe in paying themselves last so you’re working non-stop for very little money in the beginning. The good news is if you can take that risk, the reward can be exponentially greater than having a “regular job”.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

The five things you need to thrive and succeed as a woman founder are:

1. Grit: You will face adversity as a founder, and you need to have the strength to hit back at nay-sayers and keep going. Dogged determination to your end goal is essential.

2. Communication Skills: With the advent of texting, instant messenger, etc. many people lose the ability to communicate in-person or even on the phone. They use emojis instead of words and capital letters without realizing they’re essentially yelling at someone over text/email. Clear, concise, open, honest communication is the baseline for a successful woman founder.

3. Relationship-building skills: People buy from people they know or someone who knows that person. The more relationships you build, the bigger your network, the better your chance of success is going to be. If you have a limited network and don’t actively build relationships to expand it, your success will be limited. That’s not to say everything is done by word of mouth but a lot is…and often the best clients find you that way. Social media is a great place to build brand awareness and reputation that will eventually lead to sales and conversion.

4. Self-awareness: Being self-aware is more than self-confident, both of which are essential. Self-awareness allows you to identify the areas of your business that are your strengths and the ones that are weaknesses. Maybe you’re an amazing interior decorator so you launch your own business. Are you just as amazing at bookkeeping, taxes, IT, etc.? Probably not. Being self-aware enough to know when you need help, and what kind, will allow you to flourish in business.

5. Money: It takes money to build a business…regardless of industry. If you’ve got a business education, you can build the business plan yourself but then you must put it into action. You need a logo, website, business cards, project management tools, people/team, etc. It’s best to have 18 mos. of a nest egg to live off to relieve the financial pressure of a new business. This goes even if you know you’ve got a client waiting in the wings.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I believe strongly in giving back to the community and being a force for good in the world. At Dekaf Digital, we tackle this in 5 ways:

1. Scholarship program — we give out a scholarship annually to any college-bound H.S. senior with autism.

2. Community days off — we give up to 4 days off for team members to volunteer in their community

3. Donations — a percentage of our annual profits is donated to select Non-Profits.

4. Shopping — we leverage Amazon Smile for office products as they donate a portion of all sales to our selected non-profit organization

5. Board roles — personally I sit on several non-profit boards and am actively engaged with them

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

If I leave this world better than when I got here, I’ll be a happy woman. Specifically, I was raised in a home with a single Mom and 3 kids; we struggled mightily for everything we had. Both my brother and I started working at the age of 11…and contributed all our money to keep the house afloat. What stood out to me was how my mom budgeted for everything, especially food for three growing kids. I learned how to make dinner for a family of four for under $10.

If I could inspire one movement to do the most amount of good to the greatest number of people it’d be to end food insecurity. We’d find ways to repurpose food left at the end of the night at restaurants, leverage major food suppliers to donate their goods to the communities in which they live and work, and have a safe place for anyone to come to get some groceries or a hot meal. No one in this world deserves to go hungry…it’s a basic human right to be fed.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I’d be delighted and honored, to grab a bite with Steph Korey, CEO & Co-Founder of Away. She took a utilitarian product, redesigned it to make it sexy and more functional, did some compelling marketing to gain market share, and is now growing leaps and bounds. I find it fascinating that she pivoted a basic suitcase and turned it into a new conglomerate. And I’m a customer so I know their product is top-notch.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.